Prime Minister Tony Abbott says he retains full confidence in Assistant Treasurer Arthur Sinodinos despite the senator’s links to a corruption inquiry.
Senator Sinodinos has been dragged into a NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) inquiry into a huge business deal involving former state Labor powerbroker Eddie Obeid.
He has consistently denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Abbott has told parliamentary question time he stands by the NSW senator.
“Senator Sinodinos has served our country long and faithfully as a treasury official, chief of staff to a prime minister as well as a member of this parliament,” Mr Abbott said.
Mr Abbott said it was important to maintain the highest-possible standards in public life.
“People should be in public life to serve the country, not themselves,” he said.
Mr Abbott said the matters in question related to Senator Sinodinos’ life before entering politics and becoming a minister.
Mr Abbott also said the ICAC inquiry was into a company, not any particular individual.
Labor grilled Senator Sinodinos about the ICAC inquiry in the Senate on Tuesday, prompting an angry response from the opposite side of the chamber.
Senator Sinodinos said he would be appearing at the corruption inquiry as a witness but stood by his earlier statements professing his innocence.
“Watch this space, I will be vindicated in terms of what I’ve said to the Senate,” he told the chamber.
“If I need any tutoring in how to appear before ICAC, I can ask (former Labor minister) Greg Combet or (Labor) Senator (Doug) Cameron.”
Government Senate Leader Eric Abetz intervened in many questions, claiming they were out of order because they related to incidents before Senator Sinodinos became both a senator and minister.
Key backroom figure
Senator Sinodinos has been a key backroom figure in the Liberal Party for more than two decades.
But his skills as an economist, tactician and adviser came to the fore as chief of staff to former prime minister John Howard from 1997 to 2006.
It was not unsurprising that he took up a casual vacancy in the Senate, upon the retirement of former minister Helen Coonan, in 2011 and was put on the fast-track to a ministry in the Abbott government two years later.
However, it has not been smooth sailing for the 57-year-old political strategist.
In February last year, he apologised to the Senate and updated his pecuniary interest register after media reports revealed he had not publicly disclosed his directorships in a healthcare company, an indigenous employment organisation, a communications business and three entities relating to the NSW Liberal Party.
At the time he described the oversight as a “learning experience”.
The assistant treasurer is now embroiled in the latest NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption saga, involving the disgraced former Labor MLC Eddie Obeid and the Obeid family.
ICAC is examining allegations that the Obeids were “secret stakeholders” in Australian Water Holdings and that Obeid corruptly lobbied Labor government colleagues on behalf of the company.
The inquiry has heard the family stood to make up to $60 million if the government entered into a partnership with AWH.
Sinodinos became a non-executive director of AWH in October 2008 – a position he resigned when entering parliament.
He told the Senate in February 2013 that he had been “excited” by the opportunity of joining AWH, as it provided important water projects to open up land and housing in Sydney.
The ICAC inquiry heard Sinodinos, alongside the Obeid family, stood to have “enjoyed a $10 million or $20 million payday” if AWH entered into a government contract.
“Very limited dealings”
Sinodinos insists he had not been aware of Obeid’s involvement, or that of the Obeid family, when he joined the company and even after the time he only had “very limited dealings” with Obeid.
He became non-executive chairman of AWH in November 2010.
At the time he was not aware the company’s chief executive had negotiated what had been reported as a personal loan agreement with members of the Obeid family secured against shares in AWH.
In January 2011, the AWH board agreed to provide Sinodinos with a shareholding in the company, under what he described publicly as a “gentleman’s agreement”.
He disclosed it on his pecuniary interests register, but the shares were never issued and through his lawyers in February 2013 he renounced his interest.
Sinodinos told the Senate last year he had been “shocked and disappointed” to learn that the company was financially linked to the Obeid family.
He said he played no role in the awarding of the January 2012 contract to AWH by Sydney Water, as former NSW treasurer Michael Costa had been chairman at the time.
Sinodinos believed assurances from NSW ministers that the process was being conducted at arm’s length between the two parties to the contract.
ICAC is also looking at whether Sinodinos’ placement on the company board was aimed at opening lines of communication with the Liberal Party.
The inquiry has heard AWH charged “administration costs” to Sydney Water, including $75,636 in donations to the Liberal Party.
The party has cancelled donations from AWH and decided to refund the money.
The senator says political donations by AWH were handled by “the management of the organisation at their discretion”, and he doesn’t recall them being discussed at a board level.
But he does not have a problem with the principle of companies making donations to parties.
The minister’s Liberal colleagues are now rallying around him ahead of his appearance as a witness at the inquiry.